Mystery object slams into Jupiter

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In case you missed it, the largest planet in our solar system was struck by a foreign object.

Videos emerged this week of an object apparently hitting Jupiter. The footage shows a quick flash on the right side of the planet as an object seemingly makes impact.

Amateur astronomer Gerrit Kernbauer, from Modling, Austria, said he documented the incident on March 17 while observing the planet with a telescope. He posted the video on YouTube, drawing over a million views.

At first, Kernbauer wasn’t sure what he saw. “The seeing was not the best, so I hesitated to process the videos,” he wrote in the video’s description. “Nevertheless, 10 days later, I looked through the videos and I found this strange light spot that appeared for less than one second on the edge of the planetary disc.”

This made him think about a similar incident that occurred when fragments of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet hammered Jupiter in 1994. That impact was observed by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, as well as astronomers on Earth.

“Thinking back to Shoemaker-Levy 9, my only explanation for this is an asteroid or comet that enters Jupiter’s high atmosphere and burned up [or] exploded very fast,” Kernbauer wrote.

A second video surfaced, taken by amateur astronomer John Mckeon in Dublin, Ireland, who also captured video of an object appearing to slam into Jupiter, sparking more excitement for stargazers.

Phil Plait, who is an astronomer and runs the blog Bad Astronomy for Slate.com, analyzed the videos and theorized the mystery object is possibly a small asteroid or a small comet.

“Jupiter sits on the edge of the asteroid belt and it is so big that its gravity can affect other objects over time and pull things towards it,” he said.

Although the object might be small, Plait said he believes the impact was pretty powerful. “An object will hit Jupiter with roughly five times the velocity it hits Earth,” he said, meaning even a small rock can pack a powerful punch. However, the impact probably didn’t leave any visible damage to Jupiter’s cloud top, he said.

It’s also important to note that Jupiter is struck often by foreign objects. In 2009, Hubble captured aftermath of an object hitting the planet.

March’s impact comes a few months shy of NASA’s spacecraft Juno entering Jupiter’s orbit. Juno will be the first probe to see below the planet’s dense clouds.